Algorithms, the New Ad Men predict consumer interests

Jackson Haenchen

UT advertising professor Gary Wilcox gets more excited about online ads than most people.

“I just looked at this!” he said. “Two minutes ago I just looked at this thing on eBay and pop, it comes up on my Facebook feed.”

Wilcox, who specializes in social media analytic models, as well as advertising research and branding, said advertising is changing in a big way. It’s not just companies digging for information, he said. Users are now giving it up willingly.

“Nowadays, you’re tracked all over,” he said. “Not only your movements on the web, but your movements physically.”

Companies such as Google and Facebook use predictive algorithms to convert each user’s online activities into conclusions about that user’s interests. Foursquare utilizes user location data to provide restaurant recommendations. Google offers a service to let users define their own interests to see more relevant ads.

Wilcox said when advertisers can individually tailor ads to the viewer, the typical resentment and frustration drops away.

“People say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be bothered with ads,’” he said. “But if we can make them relevant to what you’re doing, you won’t see them as a bother.”

Wilcox said the process of defining an ad’s targeted audience has never been easier. Facebook provides filters for age, gender, location, language, interests and behavior. Wilcox added, however, that it’s still unclear whether automation is the final solution to irrelevant ads.

Emily Cohen, UT graduate and advertising manager for Texas Student Media, has had a long career in advertising and marketing, including ten years at the Houston Chronicle.

“When I’m working with the students [selling ads], I always talk about the businesses that they support,” Cohen said. “Think about what restaurants you go eat at, what kind of retail stores you shop at, because that’s what’s relevant.”

While Cohen has the advantage of employing the same demographic she’s advertising to, she said she does not have access to individual data and must make generalizations about her intended audience.

“[Our goal is to] appeal to as many people as possible,” Cohen said. “We want to make sure the companies we’re working with are appropriate … but we will allow virtually all industries to advertise with us.”

Often print media advertisers only know who reads their product, and the data stops there. They may have rough demographic information but not the fine-grain filtering that Facebook offers.

“We know that [our advertising] works,” Cohen said. “We hear from people, but we don’t always get direct measurements.”

This broad-stroke, “Hope you hit a few” model has dominated print advertising for the past few decades and is the product of a limited data set.

Cohen said she doesn’t think that advertising is a robot’s game yet, though.

“[An ad] still requires a human to take the photo of a shoe and write the [wording] that goes with it,” Cohen said. “It’s important we have the technology for relevance, but I think [ads] still require people behind them.”

Wilcox said that though we haven’t arrived at an automated ad world yet, the future of advertising follows consumer interests and is difficult to foresee.

“As soon as you think you’ve got [advertising] figured out, it changes,” Wilcox said. “Because we’re human. We change.”